A Guide to Healthy Sun Exposure

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Brought to us by: Cape Cod Health Care

May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month…and a good time to review an important subject as summer approaches. But first let’s look at some of the facts.

Approximately 20 percent of Americans will develop a skin cancer by age 70. The three most common forms of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. Actinic keratosis is the most common form of precancerous change, affecting 58 million people in the U.S.

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer with an estimated 4.3 million new cases each year. Despite the more than 3,000 deaths it causes annually, if caught early, almost every case can be cured. For this reason, early detection is paramount. If ignored, it may invade surrounding tissue, nerves and bones and may cause significant damage and disfigurement.

The second most common type of skin cancer is squamous cell carcinoma. These cancers tend to develop on skin that is exposed to sun for years. Those fond of tanning beds and booths significantly increase their risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma, and will potentially develop it earlier in life. Again, early diagnosis and treatment of this cancer is extremely important, because squamous cell carcinomas may be quite curable. They can spread to other parts of the body (metastasize) if not treated. There are over 15,000 deaths from squamous cell cancer with greater than one million cases diagnosed annually.

Melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer. In 2019 it’s estimated that there will be close to 100,000 new cases of melanoma and over 7,000 deaths from this type of cancer. The five-year survival for a patient diagnosed early is about 99 percent, but drops to 15-20 percent if not diagnosed until it has spread to distant organs.

Follow this link to the “ABCDE” warning signs of melanoma. The risk of developing melanoma doubles if one has had more than five sunburns. Although people will often focus on looking at existing moles, it’s important to note that 70-80 percent of melanomas arise from what appears to have been “normal” skin.

Let’s take a minute to talk about indoor tanning, recognizing that ultraviolet radiation is a proven human carcinogen. UV tanning devices are classified by the FDA as Class II (moderate to high risk) devices. A research affiliate of the World Health Organization classifies tanning devices in its “Group 1.” Group 1 members also include such cancer causing agents as cigarettes and plutonium. The annual medical cost related to skin cancer secondary to indoor tanning is over $343 million.

The total annual cost of skin cancers in the US is estimated to be over $8 billion ($3.3 billion related to melanoma). This is not taking into account any of the cosmetically-related costs recognizing that 90 percent of skin aging is related to sun exposure.

As summer on the Cape approaches (I’ve been promised it will come this year!) please remember the important preventive steps you can take for your family and those important to you:

  • Seek shade, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

  • Cover up with clothing, hats, and UV-blocking sunglasses.

  • Find a sunscreen classified as “broad spectrum” (this means it blocks both UVA and UVB rays) with an SPF rating of 15 or greater – and use it every day.

  • If you will be outdoors for an extended period, use a water-resistant sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher.

  • Apply two tablespoons of sunscreen over exposed areas and reapply every two hours for those days you are outdoors.

  • Babies less than six months should avoid being outdoors. For babies over six months, sunscreen may be used but prudence is still the word.

  • Don’t use tanning booths or beds.

Seeing your physician annually for a skin check is important, but it’s also important for you to learn to examine your skin, and do so on a regular bases. A good guideline available from the American Academy of Dermatology titled “How to spot skin cancer” is available here.